By some strange twist of fate, I’ve been pretty much the only head-fier who‘s owned a Sennheiser IE800 and posted impressions for over a month now. Maybe some of my less flattering posts have scared other buyers off. Or maybe limited availability is the reason why IE800 impressions have been mostly comprised of my lone monologue so far. For better or worse, I think it’s time to wrap up my thoughts, so here we go...
Believe it or not, this is not meant to be a damning review. I’m not someone who gets a kick out of bashing. The IE800 are, in some ways, extraordinarily good IEMs. I predict there will be other reviews, who’ll praise them to the skies. There‘ll probably be hype, and rightfully so. Don’t get me wrong, these phones belong up there with the very best, be it universals or customs.
Still, after the initial wave of enthusiasm, there'll be frustration over questionable design choices, and there'll be second thoughts. What if Senn would have tuned the IE800 just a little less bassy? What if they'd designed them more over-ear friendly, to avoid microphonics? What if they'd just used standard tips, so we wouldn't have to worry about losing them? What if… ?
Technology / Manufacturer Specs
Single 7mm dynamic driver
Distortion: < 0.06% 1 KHz, 94 dB
Weight: 8g w/o cord
Price paid: €700 (~ $950)
In the Box:
5 pairs of proprietary, different sized silicon tips
Very nice medium sized leather carrying case
„Dude, what’s with the fit/design chapter, did you leave that one out?“
„Nope, but I thought I’d tell you the better news first.“
(Disclaimer/words of caution: I don't hear much above 16kHz, so take my comments about highs with a grain of salt.)
I’ve been using the IE800 for more than a month on a daily basis. I’ve noticed no noteworthy burn-in effects during that period. My primary sources are a Samsung Galaxy S3 (EU version) and a Cowon i9, but I’ve also tried the Senns with my Xin supermicro IV and Graham Slee Voyager amps. Impressions from unequalized sources have been pretty consistent, with no significant benefit from amping.
Sound signature: The IE800’s overall sound signature is reasonably balanced throughout the highs and mids, with a gradual emphasis towards low bass. See post #2, if you want to (re-)read my detailed listening impressions and comparisons from the IE800 thread.
Bass: Awesome extension and kick for such a small driver. Good clarity, control and definition at low to medium volume, but ultimately a bit too bloated. More emphasis on low bass than on mid/upper bass (similar to the Yamaha EPH-100 and Sony MH1). As a result, mids remain widely unaffected, though there’s a gradual decrease of clarity/control in bass and increase of lower midrange warmth as you crank up the volume.
Mids: The IE800’s undisputed strong point. Extremely clear and hyper-detailed, but not at all in an aggressive or artificially dissecting way. To the contrary: the Senn‘s mids are probably the most natural and refined of all IEMs I’ve heard (including the custom UERM and JH13). Very good timbre with voices and acoustic instruments. Vocals in particular have a sublime quality of just „being there“, eerily lifelike and tangible.
Highs: Almost at eye level with the mids, extended, smooth and highly resolving. The level of detail is stunning at first, but on careful listening treble turns out to be slightly too thin for a realistic timbre. Nitpicking, I know, but think drumsticks sounding a bit like pencils, audience applause reminiscent of crumpling cellophane, and you get the idea. Depending on fit (see next chapter) there’s also a tendency to exaggerate sibilance, though as a whole, treble is far from sounding harsh or overly aggressive.
Transparency: Source transparency is excellent throughout the midrange and highs, but noticeably impaired by exaggerated bass. However, it's worth mentoning that on the go the IE800’s bass boost compensates for the masking effect of ambient noise, and perceived transparency is better than in quiet surroundings.
Dynamics / Soundstage / Separation / Imaging: The Senn‘s super-clear mids convey a feeling of directness and intimacy without much forward projection, but the driver‘s good dynamics make for excellent depth and layering. Owing to their very high resolution, the IE800’s separation is impeccable, with well defined space for instruments and vocalists. Stage width and presence of a center image vary a bit between downward and over-ear, and I’ve found imaging a bit more coherent with cables worn downward (see post #2 for details). Overall I’d characterize the IE800’s soundstage as neither overly spacious like the IE8's, nor lacking or closed-in, but above all with a quite extraordinary sense of depth.
Listening impressions / Comparisons to other IEMs: see post #2
Design / Fit / Build Quality
I’m afraid, this is the part where things get frustrating...
...not regarding build quality, mind you, so let’s get this out of the way: build quality feels top-notch overall, from seemingly indestructible ceramic housings to highest quality cables with proper strain reliefs. I can’t foresee any potential issues here, except maybe for the tips – but more about that later.
...but regarding fit and design: here’s how I summed up my impressions in an earlier post:
Seriously guys, I would have been entirely happy if they'd just kept the IE8/80 design. More supple and less microphonic cable, removable at the earpieces, over-ear friendly length, optional short replacement cable. It was pretty much perfect in my book.
The new design is a complete dud in comparison. Seems almost like they let the trainee do it.
Sorry to say, after more than a month of hands-on experience, I can't take a single word of that back.
Short upper cable / Microphonics: Sennheiser opted for a two piece cable design with a 2.5mm connector at the splitter. For some reason they made the IE800's upper cables less supple and more microphonic than the IE8's, and on top of that only 25cm (9.8 inches) long, which is just a tad too short to wear them comfortably over the ear. As a result, you can choose between enduring micophonics if you wear them downwards, and getting semi-strangled if you try to wear them over the ear.
(A/N: There's not even a shirt clip included to tame cable microphonics. An attentive MOT volunteered to offer a free Senn clip with the IE800. Thought I'd link it here, but for some strange reason the offer has since been deleted from the thread.)
Over-ear / Behind the neck: Since neither downwards nor regular over-ear seems like an ideal choice to wear the IE800, you could choose to wear them over-ear with the cable down your back (the way musicians wear their stage monitors). While I can get a reasonably secure fit by tightening the cable cinch at the neck, the cable is just too short to reach to my front jeans pocket.
Wireless headset: Using only the upper part of the cable together with a Nokia AD-53 adapter (2.5 to 3.5mm) and a wireless dongle like the Samsung HS3000 is a convenient solution. In fact this is how I use the IE800 for commuting, either cable down with the dongle clipped to my jacket, or over the ear with the dongle clipped to the shirt collar behind my neck. The latter is extremely handy and devoid of all microphonics, but obviously I can't use the dongle for phone calls that way.
Seal / Isolation: Due to the IE800's tiny housings, it would be pretty easy to get a secure deep seal, if it weren't for their awkwardly placed strain reliefs. In fact, with cable-down you get just about 15mm insertion depth until the strain reliefs hit your ear and prevent further insertion. A deeper and more secure seal can be obtained with over-ear. Isolation with cable-down is slightly better than the IE8's and further improved with deeper over-ear fit, but still stays well below Westone and Shure isolation levels.
Wind noise: The IE800's twin vents protrude like chimneys from a roof. As a result, the Senns are quite prone to wind noise, depending on insertion depth. The less those vents protrude from your pinna, the less the noise. Unfortunately the strain reliefs makes deep insertion a no-go with downward fit, so your best bet to avoid wind noise is to wear them over-ears with a deeper fit (if you can).
Proprietary Tips: The IE800 use proprietary tips that snap directly onto the earpieces, so there's no nozzle to speak of and no way to use third party tips (except maybe for mounting them on top of the stock tips). There are 5 sizes of tips included, so in all likelihood they should fit all ears. Sadly, from my experience this new snap-on solution is not as reliable as properly fitted conventional tips, and I've had tips come off twice during my first month of mobile use. Luckily I've noticed it on both occasions and was able to retrieve the lost tip, but I'm constantly worried as a result. Losing even a single proprietary tip of the size that fits you, means your IE800 are pretty much shot unless you buy spare tips from Sennheiser.
Final Thoughts / Conclusion
I've been a big fan of the IE8 and thought their design and build quality was almost perfect. They just had that obtrusive huge mid/upper bass hump and fell a bit short in clarity and resolution, compared with the very best IEMs. Therefore I had high hopes for the IE800, because from my point of view Sennheiser just needed to retain the IE8's many strengths and improve on a few weaknesses. At almost three times the price, I expected the IE800 to deliver nothing less than exactly that.
Well, the one thing I was right about is clarity and resolution. The new Senns are among the clearest and most detailed IEMs I've ever heard, and there's not the slightest trace of the IE8's notorious midrange veil. In fact, their mids are so natural and gorgeous, that I believe the IE800 could have been the one to rule them all. Seriously, these new drivers would have had the potential in my book. But sadly, Senn decided that the IE800 needed to retain a considerable amount of their predecessor's bass boost. Granted, they shifted the peak towards deep bass and steered clear of the mids this time, but the result is still so far north of neutral that it impairs transparency quite noticeably. So far, so bad.
But to add insult to injury, they also decided that the IE800 needed a complete design revamp, with cool looking twin vents, a modular cable and proprietary snap-on tips. I can only shake my head in amazement at the outcome...
So, after all is said an done, I'm left here with a bunch of what-ifs. What if Sennheiser really wanted to get serious about creating a pair of exquisitely balanced high-end reference IEMs, based on their new fantastic driver? What if they'd revamp their design once again, to not only look good, but also be practical? What if they showed their new model to a few experienced IEM users for approval? What if... ?
Unlikely, I know, but one can wish, no? After all, it's Christmas.
Edited by james444 - 3/27/13 at 8:14am